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A Consummate Artist


ISSUE:  Spring 2002

Willa Cather and The Politics of Criticism. By Joan Acocella. Nebraska. $20.00

Like her character, Mandy Ringer, in Sapphira and The Slave Girl, Willa Cather was “born interested.” She wrote from many vantage points: autobiographical, historical, male, female. She understood that producing literature was not finding your subject, then repeating yourself endlessly, but approaching each new work with a fresh and inquiring eye. Thus she fit no type. Although Alfred Kazin called her “a consummate artist” in 1942, most critics, who were male, did not know what to do with her.

The trajectory of Cather criticism is the subject of Joan Acocella’s brilliant new book, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, which grew out of a New Yorker essay she published in 1995. Not only does it discuss the criticism; it is also a stimulating, sensible, insightful appreciation of Cather as well.

Cather was born in 1873, less than a decade after the Civil War, shaped by the 19th century, yet very much of the 20th. The early novels are more conventional, the later ones very modern. Although an almost exact contemporary of Dreiser, she was not interested in the plight of man in the city or the usual approach to issues of class; nor did her portrayal of small towns resemble Sherwood Anderson’s. Because of her late start she seemed to be a contemporary of Hemingway and Dos Passos and cummings and Fitzgerald; in reality she was a generation older. Yet she wrote about their concerns: the dreams and euphoria of the young in the settling of the West (O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark, My Antonio), the growth of the artist, (The Song of the Lark, “Coming Aphrodite”), the terror of a life unlived which seeks redemption in war (One of Ours), the pain of love and the onset of age (A Lost Lady, My Mortal Enemy, The Professor’s House), and the gap between desire and memory in all of her novels, in the stories “The Old Beauty,” “A Death in the Desert,” and the heartbreaking last ones in Obscure Destinies.

In the ‘20’s she was patronized, in the ‘30’s castigated by the Left, in the ‘40’s taken up by the Right for the religious overtones in Death Comes to the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s ignored or considered a gifted, unfashionable spinster, “a Prairie elegist.” But as Acocella points out, “to neither [the Left nor the Right] did she seem central to American literature.” Her resurrection was almost as bad as her neglect: in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s she was embraced by the feminists who read her work and life with a homosexual bias.

A writer’s lot often depends on luck. E. K. Brown, the first scholar to understand Cather’s greatness, died in 1951 while writing a critical biography, which was completed by his friend, Leon Edel. It is an even-handed narrative of her life and a fine exegesis of her work. Things might have been different had Brown lived and done for Cather what Edel did for Henry James.

What has been done to Cather is Acocella’s subject. She has read virtually all of the extant Cather criticism, and likes the work of Brown, David Daiches, Hermione Lee, and several others. But she questions the value of regarding a writer’s work with a homosexual lens and heaps scorn on what is truly lunatic criticism of some feminists. She also has the courage to ask: what does a lesbian take on Cather’s work do not only to it but to future interpretations of her work? And to go even further and imply: isn’t it time that this great original got the kind of criticism she deserves?

In a review as brief as this it is impossible to go into all the points Acocella makes. Her arguments are impressive, and her concern tactful, as when she examines the influential theory postulated by Sharon O’Brien (based on the work of Nancy Chodorow): that Cather’s problem was her continual conflict with her mother, “seeking fusion with her and fleeing engulfment by her.” She considers Ellen Moers’ interpretation of the description of Panther Canyon, but then says, in her wonderfully no-nonsense way: “This was not entirely farfetched. Cather’s description . . .does sound a little like a crotch, though it sounds a lot more like a canyon.” She also addresses the somewhat thorny issue of Cather’s independence of mind, her ability to fashion a life in which she could do and write what she pleased, with no apologies to nor permission from anyone, and her contempt for Kate Chopin and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as her admiration for James, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, and Proust. Again, the feminists have skewed things and insist this is a “cover” which, Acocella warns, is dangerous business.

It is equally risky to take a passage from Cather’s essay, “The Novel Démeublé” that reads:

Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there— that, one might say is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing, not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.

and assert that “the thing, not named” is no more than Wilde’s “Love that dares not speak its name.” As Acocella points out, Cather’s statement is based on one from Mallarmé, and is about literature and not living. It is also echoed in Cather’s essay on Katharine Mansfield:

The qualities of. . .first-rate writer can only be experienced. It is just the thing in him which escapes analysis that makes him first-rate. One can catalogue all the qualities that he shares with other writers, but the thing that is his very own, his timbre, this cannot be defined or explained . . .

and in her piece about Sarah Orne Jewett:

. . .that every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique. A quality which one . . .can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden.

Acocella can be merciless. To conclude that someone is a lesbian because she names a character Sapphira, referring to Sappho, is nonsense. So is the example, quoted everywhere: Eve Sedgwick’s deconstruction of Berengaria (the ship in The Professor’s House) into a series of homosexual references. The Berengaria was a Cunard ship on which Cather traveled. So did M.F.K. Fisher and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the psychiatrist in I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, I have recently learned.

In a review in The London Review of Books, Terry Castle wonders if Acocella is not too hard; many recent biographies use writers’ lives to explicate their work. But one can go too far. When politics prevails, leaving “Cather’s text. . .bound and gagged,” (Acocella) the critic is not doing his business. In fiction criticism, especially, what matters is the text, she reminds us, and one must be loyal to “the asthetic completeness and richness of Cather’s work.” (Joanna Russ)

Cather was very reticent about her personal life, burnt whatever letters she could, and stipulated that none of those extant be directly quoted from. Acocella concludes that “Cather might be homosexual in her feelings but celibate in her actions.” What is important in Cather’s life is not sex but her passion, her independence. An early journal entry reads: “Genius means relentless labor and passionate excitement from the hour one is born until the hour one dies.” As a child she went her own way, read Virgil and other ancients with a storekeeper, ensconced herself in the library of neighbors, befriended a music teacher. She was familiar with the Bible and read Pilgrim’s Progress countless times. Although capable of great love for her grandmother, her father and her brothers, for her friend Isabelle McClung, for the Menuhins, and many others, and although she shared a home with Edith Lewis, Cather kept the core of herself for her fiction. And although she could be wounded by critics and exasperated by the demands of fame, she knew what she needed to live and became more solitary over time. Some people see this as bitterness. I do not. It is part of what Acocella calls her tragic vision; when it came time to write the superb middle novels, she had lived long enough to know that life does not always turn out the way we dream.

Cather’s fiction is about “the exploration of individual sensitivity”; (David Daiches) or “the gulf between the mind and the world” (Acocella). For those of us who write and read fiction, there is nothing more important. It is what links her not only to her beloved ancients, but also to writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

What makes Cather’s work so remarkable is her wisdom to let her characters live, the “emotional distance,” in A.S. Byatt’s words, that she achieves while still writing vividly. Although she gets inside the skins of her characters, they are free to make their own decisions and think in the largest terms; this can happen only when a writer has what W.C. Brownell called “a continuous and sustained respect for the material.” She sees all of life, is “unflinching” (Acocella) in her presentation of the hard parts as well as the delight and joy. There is an extraordinary amount of light in Cather, but there are also shadows, and not only at the end. And, of course, there is the superb prose; pleasure springs from each sentence and paragraph.

Cather also gave American literature an invaluable legacy: she lightened the American novel, “unfurnished” it, that is what démeublé means, after all. Not everything had to be told, you could suggest, get at the essence of something without writing a weighty tome. It was what she admired in Jewett, but could you do that in a novel? The middle and later novels are testament that you can. They tell their stories simply, using a few important incidents, and make great leaps, but anyone who mistakes this for artlessness, misses the point. They also changed the course of American literature. Fitzgerald’s Nick in The Great Gatsby came from Niel in A Lost Lady, and in scores of modern novels character and essence displace incident and plot.

As Acocella discusses in her chapter, “The Tragic Sense of Life,” Cather’s great theme was exile, based on her own move at nine from Virginia to Nebraska. “It gave her everything she had: her imagination, her art . . . .” And something else: “her belief that behind what is essentially the disaster of life, there exists some order, some realm of meaning, that explains and dignifies our lives, turns them from disaster into a tragedy.”

How bracing it is to have Acocella’s intelligent commentary on Cather’s work now. It should bring everyone up short, and send them back to the work, which is not easy to explicate. With “labor” and “passion” Cather succeeded in doing what she most admired; better than almost any other American writer she developed “a cadence, a quality of voice” that is difficult to pin down. Yet it is that ineffable essence which enriches and strengthens us as we read and ponder, and puts her, in defiance of all criticism, among our very greatest.

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